Mississippi River Oil Spill Hearing Told of Towing Company’s Safety Violations

A marine surveyor called to testify yesterday at a hearing investigating the July 23 <"http://www.yourlawyer.com/topics/overview/Mississippi_River_Oil_Spill">Mississippi River oil spill said that a towing company involved in the incident had racked up dozens of serious violations during an inspection he conducted months before the spill.  The surveyor was removed from the DRD Towing safety audit after raising his concerns with the company hired to do the audit.

The Mississippi River oil spill occurred on when the tanker Tintomara and a barge carrying 419,000 gallons of oil – being towed by the Mel Oliver collided. The barge split in half, spilling much of its cargo into the river. It is estimated that about 280,000 gallons of oil actually spilled into the Mississippi.  The spill was the worst to ever occur on the lower Mississippi River.

The Mel Oliver was staffed by a crew from DRD Towing.  The DRD pilot operating the Mel Oliver at the time of the collision was not properly licensed to operate a tugboat. That individual had an apprentice mates license, which only allowed him to operate the tugboat under the supervision of a licensed master, who was not onboard the Mel Oliver at time of the accident.

Since the Mississippi River oil spill occurred, questions have been raised about DRD’s safety record.  It turns out the that pilot of another DRD tugboat, the Ruby E., also had only an apprentice mates license when that vessel sank on July 13, only a few miles from the spill.  It is also known that DRD had failed a safety audit in May, and was facing probation or revocation from the American Waterways Association, a national trade association for the tugboat, towboat and barge industry.

The Coast Guard has been holding hearings into the oil spill for the past several weeks.  Yesterday, marine surveyor James Hawkins, who performed part of that American Waterways Association audit, said he recorded 52 infractions by the company, which he described as a significant  compared with the number of offenses he typically finds during similar inspections.

According to The Times-Picayune, among the more serious offenses Hawkins found was a lack of documentation that mariners employed by DRD Towing had completed any required training programs during the previous three years.  Hawkins also said he found smoke detectors, expired fire extinguishers, dirty oil filters and evidence of pollution leaking overboard on five DRD Towing vessels he inspected.  Hawkins did not inspect the Mel Oliver.

Hawkins told the hearing that he expressed his concern to Budwine & Associates, the company hired by   DRD  to perform the audit, and recommended that other vessels owned by the towing company be inspected.  Budwine & Associates pulled Hawkins from the audit and continued without him.

The principal of Budwine & Associates testified last week that Hawkins was removed from the DRD safety audit because of tension between him and DRD personnel.  Fred Budwine told the hearing that he has worked with DRD Towing for years and considered its executives to be his “friends.”

Even with Budwine’s intervention, however, DRD failed the audit and was facing revocation from the American Waterways Association. However, the association did not inform the Coast Guard of the results of the DRD audit, because it is not required to do so. The Association finally did revoke DRD’s membership in August.

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